Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is Sarkozy right to want to ban the burqa?

In his quest to make more enemies, French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week called for the Islamic outfit known as a burqa (or burkha if you prefer) to be outlawed in France. He said they were unwelcome in France because they were a symbol of the subjugation of women.

So, does he have a point? Or should he simply butt out of people's business and let them live their lives?

The burqa, which is usually associated with Afganistan and Pakistan;

and the niqab, common in the Gulf States.

There are several issues at play here.

Islamic culture places a great deal of emphasis in personal modesty, for both sexes but particularly women. For many Muslim women, wearing some form of hijab affords them respect, and protection from being regarded simply as a sexual object. And this is not a point to be disregarded lightly; in the West where images of naked and semi-naked women are everywhere (even Sarkozy’s model wife Carla Bruni has previously posed naked), is this necessarily a step forward for women’s rights? Does the omnipresent sexualisation of the female form in modern Western culture contribute to disrespect and violence towards women? I’m not suggesting Islam has it right either, but it is hardly prudish to suggest that we in the West may have gone a bit far with some of this stuff.

So rather than being an instrument of oppression, could the burqa or niqab actually be something that liberates women? I don’t really think so, but I don’t doubt that many of the women who wear it do see it this way.

Another obvious issue is the basic freedom in a modern civilised society to wear pretty much whatever you want, providing it doesn’t offend standards of public decency or harm someone else. On these grounds, it is hard to see how a woman wearing a burqa is hurting anyone else.

We must also consider the rights of a religious or cultural group to follow traditional practices – again, so long as it does not negatively impact on others. Would it be unfairly discriminatory to ban the burqa?

Another issue is not an obvious one but one that must be considered: if the women who currently wear the burqa were banned from doing so, in what way would that change their behaviour? Would they make a simple transition to make-up and slacks, and go about their daily business? In some cases, perhaps, but in many cases the result would be that they barely leave the house – effectively this may force a kind of cultural imprisonment. Although you could argue that wearing the burqa is already a kind of imprisonment, at least it still allows them to move around freely. This may cease were it to be banned.

These, to my mind, are some strong cases against banning the burqa.

HOWEVER... despite taking all that into account, I actually agree wholeheartedly with Sarkozy on this. (Didn't see that coming, did ya?)

France’s move several years ago to ban all overt symbols of religious worship (turbans, headscarves, yarmulkes, crucifixes, etc) from state schools was a move too far. Yet from all accounts, people have more or less accepted it and had to adjust, for better or worse.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the Islamic headscarf; to me it still represents a degree of oppression, even if most women who wear it don’t see it that way at all. But in any case, a headscarf still allows people to identify each other face-to-face, which I think is very important. Also, wearing a headscarf is in practical terms no different to wearing a hoodie, a turban, a baseball cap or a beanie. So whatever you think of it, women should have the right to wear it. They must also have the right not to wear it, of course – I have a real problem with Islamic schools that enforce the headscarf as part of their uniform. The right to choose, either way, is essential here.

So the headscarf is ok. The burqa and niqab are not.

Hang on, I hear you arguing, if women must have the right to choose, shouldn’t they then have the right to choose to wear niqab or burqa?

Sheesh, that’s a tough one. But I say no.

Why? Because the burqa and niqab are primarily symbols of the subservience of women. I’m afraid I can’t get past that. I can let the headscarf slide on this one, but the burqa and niqab represent everything that is regressive about hardline Islam.

One of the common reasons given for the rigid observation of hijab - the necessity of covering up so as not to elicit impure thoughts in men - is repugnant when you think about it. It implies men are morons who cannot exercise any self-control. It places the onus on women to limit their freedom because of men's inherently voracious appetites. It also leads many Muslim men to dehumanise non-hijabi women as "sluts" and "immoral" since they do not adhere to this rigid standard. It allows men to place the blame for rape on the victim.

Some women may claim that to wear them is empowering and liberating. But let's look at the kind of people who aggressively promote these dress codes. To my knowledge only 2 governments have enforced either outfit on women in recent history. One is Afghanistan under the Taliban, who forced women to wear the burqa. Among the Taliban's other contributions to the women's movement were forbidding women from seeking employment, and killing young girls who attempted to get an education. The other government is Saudia Arabia's, which until 2008 forbade women from driving cars.

I realise what I am about to say is extremely patronising, but here goes: women who believe these garments are empowering are victims of religious or cultural propaganda who don't know what's good for them. Just like women who force other women to undergo female genital mutilation for cultural reasons. It is the equivalent of African-Americans wishing they were slaves again. It may seem strange that I or any other male should think they know what is best for a woman, better than that woman herself. Yet burqa and niqab are themselves male impositions on a woman.

I must add that it is not only Western governments that seek to impose restrictions on the various forms of hijab. Secular Islamic nations such as Tunisia and Turkey have banned even the headscarf (Tunisia has an outright ban, Turkey has many limitations on where it can be worn).

Covering one's body and face also implies that one is separate from society. Anyone expecting to be welcomed by French society or any other Western society must reciprocate that welcome, rather than exclude. It is basically a big f*** you to the wider society, since seeing a woman's face is a privilege open only to the her family - demonstrating that she is merely a possession of her father, then her husband.

I'm not for a minute saying that Western culture is morally righteous when it comes to the treatment of women. And I acknowledge that Western societies are built on a foundation of freedom, and limiting a woman's ability to choose to wear the burqa does go against that. Yet the burqa also is an affront to that other hard-won cornerstone of the modern society - women's equality.

Saira Khan has written an interesting article in Britain's Daily Mail about this topic which is well worth reading here.

So what do you think? Feel free to leave a comment.


  1. totally agree with u, couldnt have said it better myself. the niqab/burqa reduces women to mere sexual objects (while claiming to do the exact opposite) by deeming every part of us as sexually explicit. plus lets not forget that its not even islamic, its nowhere in the koran and i dont know what interpretations of the hadiths could justify it.

  2. Thoughtful, well-rounded piece.

    It must be said that, with the burkah or without, many Islamic women are prisoners in their homes anyway as they are only allowed out among the general public if accompanied by a male relative. This is the equivalent of a prisoner being permitted a shopping trip accompanied by a prison guard.